At What Age Would You Allow Your Son/Daughter to Drive Cross Country?

And what—if any—overlap does that question have on high potential leadership development?  As it turns out, quite a bit.

The dinner at the end of a 3-day leadership development program is energizing. Part celebration, part stress-release, part cohort-bonding, it is fun for participants and trainers.  Last month, I enjoyed such a dinner with leaders and executive sponsors.

The conversation topics varied widely at our table of five.  Instead of work-related topics, people discussed their hobbies, vacations and families.  At some point during the main course, one of the participants, Rachel, asked, “At what age would you allow your son or daughter to drive cross country?”  It turned out to be a terrific question that kept us occupied for the meal and into dessert.

Rachel explained that her 20 year old daughter, Hunter, asked her parents if she could drive with a friend from Boston to Nashville in June to attend an educational conference. Rachel explained that her husband, Chris, issued a considered and firm, “no.”  Rachel was still on the fence.  Not having children, I sat back and enjoyed watching and listening to the intellectual food-fight that followed.

On the other end of the continuum from Chris, was Don, one of the participants dining with us.  He confessed his disbelief with a chuckle and let us know that we were over-thinking the situation. “Twenty is old enough,” he declared. “I’d let my daughter make the trip.  What happens, happens.  The same crap that can occur 10 hours away from home can occur 10 minutes away from home.  Young adults are too coddled these days.”

Another colleague carefully waded into the conservation: “Don, is there anything you would want to make sure your daughter knew how to do before you gave your approval?  For example, know how to change a flat tire, or handle wet pavement at Interstate speeds?”

“Yeah,” Don responded.  “Dial AAA or 9-1-1.”

“You’re kidding, right?” Rachel asked with a nervous laugh.

Don shook his head, “Nope.”

It was on. We were only missing John Belushi’s classic loud invitation in the Faber College cafeteria to pick up the nearest cup of Jell-O or bowl of mashed potatoes.

Similarities between the decision to allow—(or encourage!) a cross country road trip and promoting a direct report to the next higher level of leadership

By the time dessert menus were passed around—and the debate over better-parenting techniques had waned—I shifted the conversation.  I asked, “Are there any similarities between this topic and promoting someone to the next higher level of leadership?”   In between sips of coffee and spoonfuls of pistachio gelato we agreed on the following overlap between the two topics.  For simplicity, we made the assumption that the high potential leaders had already been identified; specific methods used to identify effective high potential leaders would require another dinner—and another blog post.

  • Age and experience are related but not synonymous.

In most situations, when someone grows older their level of decision-making maturity and discretion improve.  But not always.  If someone gets older and those years are unaccompanied by rich experiences, you could easily have a 30 year old who could drive cross-country yet has the same capability as a freshly-licensed 16 year old.  The more powerful question, as one of the participants put it, is “What experiences are vital to preparing our child to drive country?”

  • Preparation/Training.

Leaders who want to increase the probability of success in their next level leadership role need to learn some of the skills needed in that role BEFORE they officially move into the role.  Similarly, what are parents actively doing to prepare children prior to driving the trip?  Reasonable minds can debate about how much responsibility falls upon the shoulders of the parent (a.k.a. the organization) to prepare the young adult and how much responsibility falls up on the shoulders of the young adult (a.k.a. the high potential leader) to ‘own’ their own preparation.

Most at the table agreed that there were a handful of skills they wanted their young adult child to know as a condition to giving their blessing to the trip.  I asked our dinner companions—and I ask you—what are the select few behaviors that you want to see a high potential leader effectively (although, not masterfully) complete before they are promoted to the next higher leadership role?

 Of course, the answers depend on the level of leadership.  Tempting as it was to make a laundry list of pre-requisites, here are the select few.  These are the equivalent of being able to change a flat tire:

o   Business literacy—understand how the organization earns and distributes money

o   Coach/Hold direct reports accountable

o   Temperament—demonstrate level-headedness in good times and bad

A real work example: One of our clients asked us to deliver a module for First Level Leaders who were on the cusp of becoming Second Level Leaders on the skill of ‘How to deliver unfavorable news to your region.’ The organization had evidence showing that when Directors didn’t complete this skill effectively, the negative results were magnified.  Consequently, they believed deeply that this was a leadership skill they didn’t want Directors learning on the job.  In a future post, I’ll share my experiences with organizations that prepare future leaders exceptionally well and those that don’t.

  • Small tests.

Most parents told me that they prefer to see some demonstrable evidence that their young adult has the capability to make a big trip before they give their blessing.  In leadership development, this might be the equivalent of stage-gates, development opportunities, stretch-assignments, etc.  These experiences might be the equivalent of having junior take the wheel during a family road trip with mom or dad sitting in the passenger seat for an 8-hour day. Sandy, another participant at our table, came up with that idea.

o   Lead a project/proposal that would normally be led by someone at the next higher level

o   Consistent top performance during business reviews where they field challenging questions from senior management

o   Temporarily fill a vacancy at the next higher leadership level

Many organizations place ‘likely-to-be-promoted’ leaders in the above trial situations.  An elite few organizations leverage these situations by conducting robust pre- and post-situation conversations with the developing leader to wring every ounce of development from the experience.

  • Capability is earned.

If you’re someone aspiring to the next level of leadership, have you asked your manager or HR business partner, “What can I do now so that I am the obvious choice when you need to recommend someone for promotion?”

During the dinner, Rachel confessed that her daughter came to her asking for advice on what she could say to convince her dad to say ‘yes’ to the cross country trip after he had already said ‘no.’  One of the participants at the table responded by making a fascinating point.  “My son is only 16 now, but if such a situation where to happen to the two of us, I would respond much more positively if he were to ask, ‘Dad, what can I do in the next 3 months to convince you that I am capable to make this trip?’” 

When high potential leaders ask similar questions they empower themselves and increase the probability of being selected for those roles.

When the dinner check arrived, everyone agreed that similar to great parenting, talent development departments cannot guarantee a smooth transition and remove all risk.  First hand leadership experience in the next higher leadership role is the ultimate classroom; but that doesn’t mean thoughtful organizations need to send their leaders into those roles with no preparation.  The probability for a successful journey is increased for leaders—and cross country drivers—with reasonable preparation BEFORE they start driving.



1 Scott { 06.24.16 at 4:05 pm }

Great article. My father let me drive 860 miles from St Louis to Colo Springs my sophomore year of college with my brother, who was a freshman. We had changed tires, changed oil, rebuilt motorcycle engines, negotiated with auto repair places, etc, since high school. We actually trailered a Yamaha 650 behind our diesel Buick Electra. We also understood we had to pay for the car repairs, gas and trip. It was great fun. Btw we broke down several times over the next three years. All GREAT learnings.

2 Ward { 07.15.16 at 12:12 pm }

T.O. — Great post! And I love the analogy. Regardless of whether we’re talking about drivers or leaders, I’m more comfortable with letting someone take the wheel when I know he or she has previously confronted a real challenge/hurdle (on the road or in the boardroom, as the case may be) and has demonstrated the capacity to be cool, calm and resourceful in solving the problem. Problem-solving aptitudes when under pressure are critical, in my view. Knowing how to change a tire in your driveway is helpful, of course, but when you blow a tire in the middle lane of an interstate highway at rush hour, you’d better have your act together. — W

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